Highlanders will have a fresh new look in 2020 with 15 players in their first season with the southern-most Super Rugby club.
There is plenty of experience in the forwards with Liam Coltman, Ash Dixon, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Siate Tokolahi and James Lentjes having 367 caps between them and newcomers Jeff Thwaites (11 games) and Jesse Parete (24 games) have already experienced Super Rugby with the Chiefs.
A player with a different sort of experience is loose forward Zane Kapeli having just returned from the Japan RWC where he represented Tonga and was dubbed “Zane the Train” after one memorable tackle on English number 8, Billy Vunipola. Kapeli (27), a former rugby league player and currently working as a builder, has previously played for both Waikato and the Bay of Plenty Steamers.
Hard-working Southland prop Ethan de Groot may have had his Mitre 10 season cut short by injury but at just 20 years of age, he is already shown enough promise to warrant a Super Rugby contract and looks a good prospect for the future.
Another player with a bright future is Wellington loose forward, Teariki Ben-Nicholas, who gains his first Super Rugby selection after a standout Mitre 10 season. A NZ U20 representative in 2015 and a NZ Universities representative in 2018, he is a strong ball carrier that can make good metres and is skillful with ball in hand.
Three proficient and experienced five-eights, Josh Ioane, Mitch Hunt and Bryn Gatland provide good depth in a crucial position while further out big Fijian winger, Tevita Nabura, who has spent most of the year recuperating from a season ending knee injury, with his size and pace he should give defenders a lot to think about under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
He will be joined by fellow Fijian outside back Kirisi Kuridrani (younger brother of Crusader Nemani Nadolo) who played for Counties-Manuaku during the Mitre 10 Cup and has experience with the Queensland Reds (25 games). The addition of local player and Mitre 10 standout, Jona Nareki, to the outside backs will give coach Mauger plenty of options for pace and power out wide.
2020 HIGHLANDERS SQUAD
Hookers: Liam Coltman, Ash Dixon, Ricky Jackson*
Props: Daniel Lienert-Brown, Josh Iosefa-Scott, Ayden Johnstone, Siate Tokolahi, Jeff Thwaites*, Ethan De Groot*
Locks: Pari Pari Parkinson, Josh Dickson, Jack Whetton, Manaaki Selby-Rickit*
Loosies: James Lentjes, Dillon Hunt, Marino Mikaele Tu’u, Shannon Frizell, Sione Misiloi*, Zane Kapeli*, Teariki Ben-Nicholas*, Jesse Parete*
Halfbacks: Aaron Smith, Kayne Hammington, Folau Fakatava
First-Fives: Bryn Gatland, Josh Ioane, Mitch Hunt*
Midfielders: Rob Thompson, Patelesio Tomkinson, Teihorangi Walden, Thomas Umaga-Jensen**, Scott Gregory***
Outside Backs: Ngane Punivai*, Jona Nareki*, Tevita Nabura, Josh McKay, Michael Collins*, Kirisi Kuridrani*, Connor Garden-Bachop*
*Denotes Debut season for Highlanders in 2020
** Thomas Umaga-Jensen is recovering from shoulder surgery and is not expected to return to play until April 2020.
*** Scott Gregory will join the All Blacks Sevens Squad during the Super Rugby Competition.